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Barton J. Bernstein: Why We Dropped the Bomb

Barton J. Bernstein, in the Mercury News (7-31-05):

[BARTON J. BERNSTEIN, a professor of history at Stanford University, has written extensively on the history of the A-bomb. He wrote this article for Perspective.]

... During his White House tenure (1945-53), Truman's frequent explanation and general defense of his decision to drop atomic bombs encountered little mainline public criticism. And commentators never pushed him for a forceful, clear dialogue on why the bombs were used, and on whether there was a search for alternatives.

Popular-level enthusiasm in the United States for the 1945 atomic bombings made it easy to avoid such a dialogue. That is no longer possible in 2005, especially in an America now almost equally divided between those who approve and those who disapprove of the 1945 atomic bombings.

Seeking to understand why the bomb was used begins not with Truman and not in 1945 but earlier, with his predecessor, President Franklin Roosevelt.

From virtually the beginning of the ultra-secret A-bomb project in 1941-42, there was an assumption -- growing in power and never vigorously challenged at the top levels over time -- that the A-bomb was a legitimate weapon to be used in war against a hated enemy.

Initially, the American bomb project was conceived in what was believed, incorrectly but honestly, as a desperate race with Germany.

But by mid-1944 the A-bomb target had shifted to Japan, mostly because experts believed, correctly, that Germany was not making a bomb and would surrender before the American bomb was available as a usable weapon. By late 1944, the secret U.S. planning for combat use of the still-untested weapon focused on Japan, not Germany.

Undoubtedly, the A-bomb, if ready in 1943, 1944 or early 1945, would have been used on Germany. When Truman became president in April 1945, with the target country having changed, he inherited the expensive, ultra-secret bomb project (nearly $2 billion), the effort to keep it officially secret from the Soviet Union and the assumption that the bomb would be used.

To Truman and his top advisers, with these assumptions, there was no quest to avoid the use of the bomb on Japan. They had various expectations that the bomb's use would produce desired results: It would help win the war, save U.S. lives, punish Japan for Pearl Harbor and war atrocities, help impose American terms in a surrender, justify the secret expenditures and, as a possible bonus, also frighten the Soviet Union and make the Soviets more tractable in the postwar period.

It is important to recognize the role of anti-Soviet motives in the American use of the bomb. But those motives, while present, did not make the crucial difference in U.S. decision-making.

Because the prospective use of the bomb on a hated enemy did not in principle raise serious moral problems for American leaders, there was no search or serious exploration of possible alternatives to using the bomb. To American leaders, the bomb's use offered multiple advantages and no liabilities.

Truman had no reason to ponder whether to use the weapon on Japan. His decision was, fundamentally, the implementation of long-run assumptions and the acceptance of bureaucratic momentum: The use of the bomb also fit his desires. There was no felt need for probing deliberations, a weighing of alternatives, a set of exploratory meetings and a reappraisal of the powerful legacy he had inherited.

To American leaders in 1945, there never was a sharply framed question of either use the bomb or invade Japan. Such either/or thinking distorts American leaders' understanding in pre-Hiroshima America.

They hoped -- but were unsure -- that the A-bomb, even if used more than a few times, would help propel Japan to surrender on acceptable terms before the invasion. They were committed to the invasion unless the bomb or some other means in an enervating struggle helped end the war earlier. Many in and near the top levels of the U.S. government in August, even after the atomic bombing, worried that Japan would not soon surrender and that the November invasion might prove necessary.

Not using the A-bomb, and taking risks instead on various alternative strategies, was undesirable to Truman. Only if the bomb's use had seemed unattractive to him and had to be avoided might he have been willing to risk an alternative.

Yet, in retrospect, it seems likely that some combination of reasonable alternative strategies could have obviated the A-bomb's use and ended the war before the November 1945 invasion date.

Instead of using the bomb, Truman could have taken up Japan's conditional offer for a postwar constitutional monarchy or awaited the impact of Soviet entry into the Pacific theater, while continuing and even increasing the lethal firebombings of Japanese cities and the strangling naval blockade of its ports.

But Truman found no reason to take such a risk in 1945. It would have seemed undesirable, and much too ``iffy.'' How, for example, could he have explained to rank-and-file Americans not using the A-bomb, seeking to avoid its use on Japan and possibly prolonging the war?

Thus, in view of the 1945 context, as shaped by earlier assumptions and decisions, the use of the A-bomb on Japan seems virtually inevitable. It was relatively easy for Truman. It seems highly likely, though not provable, that Roosevelt, had he lived, would have dropped atomic bombs on Japan.

Putting matters in a broader framework to understand the atomic bombing, we should ask: Would any civilized, powerful nation that had the A-bomb in World War II not have used it against a hated enemy? No.

In short, America was unique because it alone had the bomb. Such an analysis does not necessarily justify the bomb's use. But it does help to explain it and to place it in the context of World War II -- a war in which probably more than 45 million died, and many were non-combatants.